(We should probably take a blanket approach to trying harder with sports nicknames, but we won’t worry about that right now.)
Merzlikins’ play of late — he recorded his third shutout in four outings Saturday — is driving a serious playoff push from the Columbus Blue Jackets and reinforcing the notion that, collectively, we don’t know jack when it comes to goaltending. Much ink has been spilled in recent years over the unpredictability of goaltending, but this season is taking it to another level.
The Latvian Merzlikins, who has the third-best save percentage in the league at .928, is a rookie who’d never played an NHL game before this season. Co-leader Tristan Jarry played all of two NHL contests last year, making the guy he’s tied with at .929 — injured Arizona Coyotes stopper Darcy Kuemper — seem like Terry Sawchuk in terms of body of work because Kuemper did have an amazing second half last season.
Right behind Merzlikins are Jake Allen — who’s posting the best numbers of his seven-year career on the heels of being nudged out of the way by Jordan Binnington — and another freshman, Ilya Samsonov of the Washington Capitals. The Russian — a 2015 first-rounder who struggled in his first AHL season last year — leads the NHL with a 2.06 goals-against average and his play is making it more and more likely Braden Holtby’s time with the Capitals will end this summer when the latter becomes a UFA.
Of course, the second-biggest free agent contact handed out last summer was to goalie Sergei Bobrovsky by the Florida Panthers. For $10 million against the cap, “Bob” is returning one of the worst five-on-five save percentages (.902) in the entire league. The only guy with a bigger cap hit than Bobrovsky is Carey Price ($10.5 million), who’s been solid for Montreal of late, but sits firmly middle-of-the-pack or worse in several statistical categories.
Meanwhile, Bobrovsky’s old team in Columbus has witnessed both Merzlikins and the presently injured Joonas Korpisalo turn in the kind of puck-stopping teams in tight playoff races crave. And just for fun, Matiss Kivlenieks — Columbus with that Latvian hookup! — made his NHL debut on Sunday and stopped 31 shots in a 2-1 Jackets win over the Rangers.
Only fools think they know anything about this position.
Other Weekend Takeaways
• As long as you promise not to look up my other predictions, let me just say I wasn’t convinced the Jackets were going to fall apart this season. Columbus has won five straight after a pair of weekend victories and the team is 9-2-0 in its past 11. The underlying numbers will tell you this is largely a goalie-and-luck driven run, but even the staunchest “Give me hard numbers or death!” people would have to concede the presence of some good karma in Columbus. You had to admire this club pushing in its chips last year when it knew both its in-house UFAs (Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin) as well as its gun-for-hire (Matt Duchene) were all likely to bolt. The fact the Jackets are in a playoff spot nearly one year after going all-in at the deadline is fantastic to see.
• Milestone Weekend Pt. 1: How fun is it going to be watching Alex Ovechkin chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record in about five years? “Ovie” recorded a hat trick Saturday — his second in as many outings; dude has eight goals in his past three contests — in Washington’s 6-4 win over the Islanders and now sits tied for ninth all-time with Steve Yzerman at 692 goals. Ovechkin is on pace for 57 this year, which would put him at No. 7 on the list by season’s end, 179 back of Gretzky. The math is getting increasingly tangible on this one: If he plays five more years after this one, he’d need to average 36 goals in that span to equal Gretzky in his age-39 season. The way things are going, it’s starting to feel more realistic Ovechkin will chase down “The Great One” in four years by averaging 45 or better in those campaigns.
• Ovechkin is a natural segue to Sidney Crosby, who — surprise, surprise — still knows his way around a hockey rink. Game 3 since his return from hernia surgery was Friday in Detroit, where Sid netted the overtime winner. On Sunday versus the Bruins, he cued a three-goal Pittsburgh comeback by drawing the first assist on the team’s first and second goals in what turned into a 4-3 victory over one of the league’s best outfits. This guy…
• Milestone Weekend Pt. 2: Patrick Kane is the youngest United States-born player to reach 1,000 points (31 years, 61 days) after a two-assist weekend in victories over Toronto on Saturday and Winnipeg 24 hours later. Kane has 15 points on his current 10-game point streak and the Hawks — winners of five straight — have climbed into the Western Conference wild-card conversation.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 20, 2020
• You’re on warning, NHL: “Mr. Game 7” is back, and he’s already scoring shootout winners and leading the Storm Surge.
• Sometimes all you can do is pick up your teeth and go home.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Vancouver Canucks (27-18-4) – The Canucks are atop the Pacific Division, directly ahead of a couple other teams on this list. Vancouver granted San Jose just 18 shots on Thatcher Demko during Saturday’s 4-1 win.
2. Edmonton Oilers (26-18-5) – The Oilers scored a huge 7-3 win over the Coyotes on Saturday and have won five of their past six contests.
3. Calgary Flames (26-19-5) – Saturday’s “Battle of the Tkachuks” in Ottawa went to Brady, who opened the scoring in a 5-2 win for the Sens over Matthew and the Flames.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (25-17-7) – Pounded 6-2 by Chicago on Saturday, the Leafs have averaged five goals against in their past six outings. Life without Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin was always going to be tough, but this club is back to a spot where it has to worry about missing the playoffs.
5. Winnipeg Jets (25-20-4) – Speaking of missing the playoffs, the Jets are suddenly three points back of the final spot in the West following a disastrous 7-1 loss to Tampa on home ice on Friday and a 5-2 setback in Chicago 48 hours later.
6. Montreal Canadiens (22-21-7) – Ilya Kovalchuk scored again on Saturday and now has four goals and four assists for eight points in his eight-game Habs career. The Canadiens already have 11 draft picks this June. Are they further ahead gaining one more late-rounder by moving “Kovie” at the deadline? Or should they see if there’s a fit on a mega-bargain, one-year deal to bring the right winger back next year when he’ll be 37?
7. Ottawa Senators (17-23-8) – Connor Brown went 1-and-1 on Saturday for the third straight game and he’s averaging over 20 minutes per night in his new home, up from 13:48 last year in Toronto.
In Your Ear
If you think I like talking about Ovechkin’s goal chase, you should hear my co-host Rory Boylen go on about it. In addition to the “Ovie” talk, we chatted with Abbey Mastracco about where the Devils go from here following the axe fall on GM Ray Shero.
The Week Ahead
• Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States brings some afternoon hockey on Monday, as the Red Wings visit the Avs.
• Seventeen teams are on their bye week and the only Canadian club in action is the Jets.
• There will surely be good vibes all weekend in St. Louis, as the defending champs play host to the entire league for the 2020 All-Star Game and all the festivities that go with it.